Managing your forest land – Landowners Top-10 Frequently Asked Questions
US Forest Service, State and Private Forestry – Northeastern Area
Forest Stewardship Program

5.  Do I need to harvest trees and, if so, how do I get started?

The decision to cut, which can create both anxiety and excitement, should be based on a written management plan.  Planning and implementing the right treatment in your forest require considerable time and thought.  You wonder which trees to cut and which trees to leave, whether the felling will be completed safely, and what to do with the cut trees.  Like any treatment to your forest, harvesting has the potential to significantly improve it or degrade it.  Thus, the significant amount of energy you might put into planning is easily justified. 

If you don’t have a management plan, start with a call to your service forester.  Working with a professional forester can significantly improve both the quality of the stand left after the treatment and the value you receive from it.  There’s no such thing as a stupid question during this process.  There are four steps that will help you make decisions about the harvesting process. 

Step 1.  Is this the right time to harvest?
The first step is to confirm that it is the right time to cut some trees.  You need to think carefully about what you want your forest to look like after the treatment is complete.  Once you have your ideal future forest in mind, it may be a good idea to reread your management plan and have an explicit discussion with your forester (FAQ 1) about how the cutting will shift your forest towards your goals. Sometimes, an owner is pressured to think that trees “need” to be cut or that the trees are getting too big.  The need to cut and whether a tree is too big depend on your ownership objectives.  Thus, the management plan is a critical standard against which to judge the need to cut. 

Step 2. What is the best way to conduct the harvest?
The second step is to discuss with your forester the specifics of the treatment.  Decide what time of year would be optimal, and whether any products can be utilized from the cut trees.  If the cut trees will be utilized, discuss the location of skid trails for equipment access and the landings where the equipment will pile the trees. 

This is also the best time to discuss any current or future ways for you to use the area being cut, such as for camping, skiing, or agroforestry , to ensure that the treatment is compatible with these other uses.  At this step, you might go into the woods and mark locations for skid trails, landings, and other land uses.  While in the woods, plan for those best management practices, or BMPs, necessary to ensure water quality and the health of the forest.  Your forester can help you to plan for careful implementation of BMPs (FAQ 7).

Step 3. Which trees should be cut?
The third step is to pick the trees to cut and to leave.  This process is called marking, and usually involves putting paint on the trees to designate cut versus leave trees.  Typically you mark either the cut or the leave trees, not both.  Depending on the size of the area to be cut and the complexity of the forest, almost all forest owners will want to involve a forester (FAQ 1) in marking the trees.  In some cases a forester might mark a sample acre to guide you in marking the remainder of the area being cut.  In other cases, especially those involving high value products during the current or future cutting, the forester may do all the marking. 

Many factors need to be considered in deciding which trees to cut or leave--more than can be discussed here.  But, for example, the average diameter of the residual trees should increase, the percentage of diseased or defective trees should decrease, the spacing between the desired residual trees should become more regular, and the diversity of residual trees should reflect your objectives.  In a nutshell, that means that it’s best to remove the worst of your stand and to leave the rest of the trees to grow in value (FAQ 4).  Meeting these and other marking criteria, plus potentially trying to generate some revenue from the harvest, requires knowledge and experience.

Step 4. How do I arrange for the actual cutting and selling of the trees?
The fourth and final step is to arrange for the marked trees to be cut and sold.  Few forest owners have the time, skill, and equipment to safely and efficiently cut all their trees.  Successful implementation of a harvest plan involves directional felling, cutting logs to length, hauling logs to the landing, removing them from the site, and merchandising for products.  Doing these things right requires skill and professionalism.  Doing these tasks wrong can result in your injury, permanent damage to your forest, or the loss of potential revenue. 

Often the forest owner and forester will contract with a logger or sawmill to buy and cut the marked trees.  The specifics of the harvest, described in step two, form the basis for a contract with the cutter.  Most state forestry agencies have examples of harvest contracts that can be modified by your attorney.  The contract will also specify the payment schedule, surety bond , and any penalty fees.  Forest owners with considerable skill in directional felling and with adequate machinery might personally do the cutting and skidding.  However, logging is one of the most dangerous professions and should not be done as a casual activity.

Where can I find more information?


Recommended Web link

General links on cutting and harvesting

Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Water Quality

Timber harvest contracts

Directional felling and chain saw safety

Marking trees for cutting

Utilization, marketing, and economics